It’s review time again! Today we’re covering something new and different.
Some of you may recall a review several months ago for the wonderful Moon Man charity zine featuring Peter Capaldi in all his various roles. Recently I was approached by the editor of that zine, Ginger Hoesly, about another upcoming zine, which I’m happy to cover. This project is titled A Pile of Good Things, and features the Eleventh Doctor in a collection of short stories and artwork. This project is a little different, in that it’s more of a small anthology, focusing on the Eleventh Doctor specifically as opposed to the actor; and so it will take me a few posts to cover it. In the meantime, you can find it for purchase at this link, where it will be available until 25 November (along with some of Ginger’s other projects, including Moon Man). Check it out!
There are nine stories in this collection, and twenty-five art pieces. My goal is to review each story individually, and to wrap up with a post featuring a selection of artwork. As I mention in every case of a charity or fan project, my usual procedure is to include a plot summary. “Spoilers!” I hear you say. Well, yes, but there’s a reason for it! These projects as a rule don’t get the kind of documentation that licensed works get. There’s no TARDIS wiki for fan projects (to my knowledge anyway, and if I’m wrong, someone please hook me up!) [EDIT: Thanks to Aristide Twain for pointing out the Whoniverse wiki in the comments below, which covers works of this type.] Star Trek has Memory Alpha for canon works and Memory Beta for…well, less canon works, but we Whovians don’t have anything like that. The thought that such a broad swath of the Doctor Who universe should be unknown and undocumented is downright criminal. In addition, fan projects are usually available only for a limited time, and thereafter become very hard to obtain. Therefore, I add a level of detail here that definitely falls into the category of “spoilers”, so that there will be a record of these stories (for the record, I put these posts on Reddit’s /r/Gallifrey subreddit as well as here on the blog). But, if spoilers aren’t your thing—or if you simply plan to buy the zine and see for yourself—you’re still in luck! I clearly mark the spoiler section, and tell you where to pick up if you want to skip it.
With that said, today we’re reading Displaced Persons, by Michael O’Brien, featuring the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead from here to the next division line!
Amy Pond didn’t ask for a quick lesson in TARDIS mechanics, but she gets it anyway, as the Doctor holds up a smoking bit of electronics. The device is—or was–a vortex transducer, which enables the TARDIS to materialize as it exits the time vortex. Unfortunately, the main collection of transducers has burned out…as have the backups…and the emergency units. The TARDIS is, as it were, on its last legs. The good news: It can synthesize more! The bad news: To do so requires a supply of a temporally active material called tetratimoline vizorimide (“tetraviz”, for short), and that substance is rather rare. Still, as usual, the Doctor knows a guy, and so he takes the TARDIS in for a bumpy landing.
The Chasisto: a fine military cruiser in the Planetary Alliance Star Navy. Humanity is mostly (if briefly) at peace, but still, vigilance and weaponry are constants of history… at any rate, the Doctor quickly introduces Amy to Captain (formerly Commander) Ben Criette, an old friend. Criette’s ship and crew can produce the tetraviz, but with a mind-bending twist: the process must be initiated about forty-eight hours after it is completed. Amy waves this off with characteristic grace, because there is another issue at hand.
Isn’t there always?
The Chasisto has recently taken on a rather odd, sarcophagus-like object. [Note: I’m going to interject here and say that I was absolutely certain this was going to be another Genesis Ark and thus a Dalek story. I was pleasantly surprised! Read on.] The device has been analyzed, and revealed to be a Multi-Dimensional Memory (MDM) unit. Such a unit could hold a galaxy’s worth of information! But there’s a catch—the technology is notoriously risky, and humanity abandoned the idea. But what if this unit is functional–! Stranger still, the device is transmitting, but no translation has yet been possible. And more: It is exhibiting odd temporal phenomena, winking in and out of existence—so, does it come from the past, or the future? The Doctor quickly sorts out the translation, and finds that the device—or at least its message—stems from an old familiar race: the Vardans.
The message is a distress call. It states that the Vardans are refugees from the Last Great Time War. They are escapees of a prison set up by the Doctor long ago, in which the Vardans—in their pure-energy forms—were trapped in a temporal loop on a distant world. They claim to be non-combatants, held in slowly failing storage. The Doctor deftly avoids any discussion of the Time War, and puts it to Criette and his senior officers (and one Admiral Drayth, who is along for the ride) to decide: Help the Vardans, or not? The decision is aided by the surroundings: the room in which the unit is being analyzed is a sort of tactile imaging chamber, able to produce solid holograms. While the ship can’t hold thousands of refugees, it can allow some representatives to manifest in a physical form, and make negotiations. The plan seems sound; and via some quick maneuvering around Drayth’s objections, the Doctor ensures that he and Amy will be present when the Vardans are unbottled, as it were.
Five Vardans are manifested, led by one Kamark. But—perhaps predictably—it quickly proves to be a trap! The Vardans seize control of the chamber and its holographic projectors; however, their forms instantly melt away and resolve into something more monstrous. The Doctor recognizes these insectile forms…
Even the humans recognize this parasitic race as a threat, and open fire, but to no avail. They begin to grapple with the Wirrn. The Doctor demands to know how many Vardans were infected by the Wirrn; the lead Wirrn claims that they have infested the entire data unit. Further, they’ve learned a trick from the Vardans: With the ability to become solid via hologram, they are able to infest living beings again—and they plan to do so to the crew of the Chasisto.
With the situation deteriorating, the Doctor looks around for something that will get them out. Most of the items in the room are useless; but he spies Amy wielding a bottle of a heavy fluid to beat down a Wirrn. Wait…where did that come from? With a sudden flash of intuition, he tells her to throw it at the databank. She catches it as it fades out of existence; the bottle is caught and goes with it, leaving only the fluid—the tetraviz—to splash on the unit as it fades in again. The Wirrn vanish, along with the unit, and the ship’s computers begin to reboot themselves.
In the aftermath, the Doctor explains that he noticed the container, and realized it hadn’t been there before—meaning, it came from the future. That guaranteed that it was filled with the requested tetraviz. Meanwhile the databank was already temporally unstable, due to its passage through the Time War and the effort of holding corrupt Wirrn bio-data (the Wirrn not being naturally suited to energy forms). Combine the two, and… well. The results were catastrophic, for the databank at least. Oh, it will require that another batch of tetraviz will have been started for the Doctor…but that’s the future. Isn’t it? It’s enough to give anyone—especially Amy—a headache.
Well, that was fun! This story, I have to say—and if you read the spoiler section, you’ll have seen my note to this effect—did not go the way I expected it to go; but it was a refreshing change. The Vardans are a bit of a one-note villain, as are the Wirrn; but one note is really all that’s needed here. Remember, this is a short story, and that’s by design.
I like the reference to the Time War. It’s always interesting, to me, to see how the Time War relates to the universe as it exists after the War ended. While humans may not have much memory of the War, other races weren’t so lucky, and it’s interesting to get a look at how they’ve changed in the wake of events. The Vardans were last seen on television in The Invasion of Time, before the War; this story serves as a followup of sorts. The Vardans here are a remnant of those trapped by the Doctor in that story, now having survived the Time War, only to fall to the Wirrn. A terrible ending for them, no doubt—they were always second-string villains in terms of power and capability (Bernice Summerfield once stated that they were “the only race in history to be outwitted by the intellectual might of the Sontarans”, a reference to The Invasion of Time, mentioned in No Future), but they still don’t deserve the Wirrn. But I have a bit of a soft spot for the Vardans; shortly prior to this story, I had finished reading the New Adventures novel No Future, which gives the canon explanation for the Vardans’ escape from the Doctor’s trap. They, uh…they come off looking pretty bad there as well. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all, I guess (and if you’re a Vardan, can’t win any).
All joking aside, though, the best thing about this story is seeing the Doctor and Amy together again. There are few hints as to when this story takes place, but given that Rory isn’t mentioned, I’d place it in early Series Five. No cracks in time are mentioned, but as this is indeed a very short story, that’s no major issue. I took great pleasure in casting the lines in my head in the voices of the Doctor and Amy; my compliments to Michael O’Brien for absolutely capturing their mannerisms, their banter, their wit. In addition, we get a nice setting for this story in the Chasisto. I’m reminded of the ship in Into the Dalek, though this is not (apparently at least) the same military, and definitely not the time of the Dalek wars. Supporting characters are briefly described, and not deeply developed (again, short story), but we get some nice hints of backstory between the Doctor and Captain Criette, which are really all we need to bring that character (and by extension, the others) to life.
All in all, well done, and a nice beginning. If we can proceed in this vein, we’ll do well. It’s worth the purchase just for this story—and we have eight more to go, plus a wealth of artwork.
Next time: Lost Soul, by Katie and Claire Lambeth! See you there.
A Pile of Good Things is available here until 25 November 2019, in both physical and digital form.